The young woman shared her story of moving from addiction to sobriety, of distrust in churches to a conversion experience that led her into a leadership position at New Horizons United Methodist Church.
Senseera Potter had just finished taking a group of United Methodist leaders through the residential facility where she lives, a complex for formerly homeless people who struggle with substance abuse or mental health issues. She stood at the bus door the afternoon of May 5 as the final person who said "goodbye" and "God bless all of you" to the bishops and other leaders.
Then, she felt called to get on the bus and remind them: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
Amid the spring meeting of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, church leaders fanned out to several sites in this Midwestern city to learn about places where the church is visiting those in prison, comforting the sick, feeding the poor and offering housing to the homeless.
Bishops visited several sites: Marion Correctional Institution, an Hispanic ministry offering assistance with immigration issues, an inner-city congregation that ministers with the poor, a charitable pharmacy providing prescriptions to those in need, and an anti-poverty program.
In visits like these-and in meeting people like Potter at Briggsdale Apartments and a seminary student running a "free store" out of a church, both part of the Greater Hilltop Shalom Zone-the bishops discovered the ministries are mutual.
"Her (Potter's) story is really a transforming story. Her story is really a faith story," Chicago Area Bishop Hee-Soo Jung said. "Both of them gave the 'spark moment,' a divine spark through their lives."
A teen shops in the Free Store inside Columbus' Westgate United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo by Crystal Missler
Crying to the Lord
The Shalom Zone on the west side of Columbus is part of a national church initiative encouraging collaborative ministry to communities across America. The effort in Columbus began with a group of small United Methodist congregations and has expanded to a broad network of social agencies and hundreds of volunteers engaging the poor with multiple ministries.
Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and Catholics are among the volunteers at the "Free Store" housed in Westgate United Methodist Church.
Before the store opens, there is a time of prayer, when "shoppers" are given an opportunity to share their joys and issues. They are then welcomed with a smile and take turns looking through a large room filled with clothes, food, children's toys, blankets and other goods.
In one corner of the room stands a painting with the words, "In my distress I cried unto the Lord and he heard me. Psalm 120:1."
"Some of them look forward to it mightily because it is a time to lift up their concerns," said the Rev. N. Eugene Brundige, pastor of Hilltonia and New Horizons United Methodist churches.
A new calling
A combination of pastoral care, unconditional love and social ministry has enabled Brundige to draw both the neighborhood poor and young women and men excited about being active in the community into his churches.
"I'm bringing in the people they say it's impossible to bring in," Brundige said. "They're poor. They're in their 30s. They're excited about doing something."
Ed Wilson, a member of Hilltonia Church, could barely contain his excitement in telling the bishops about his involvement in a monthly Morning Manna breakfast and a message-and-a-meal program that may be the only "church" some participants will have.
"I get the Holy Spirit in me when I talk about this," he said. "If I get choked up, pray for me."
Keith Richardson, who joined the church about 18 months ago, is trying to start a ministry of visiting and caring for the homeless in the Hilltop area.
He and his wife now pick up three of "our homeless friends" on Sunday morning, take them to church, and then go out to dinner together.
"It started out at first I was helping them. I thought I was helping them," Richardson said. "But it's turned completely around. They're helping me."
A Christmas story
Marla Flewellen, a seminary student and executive director of the Free Store, remembered the Christmas before last when a homeless man who needed a coat came just as the store was closing for the holiday. He was tall and frail with a scraggly beard and an unpleasant odor.
Her response: "Let's go back and find you a coat."
There were tears in his eyes as he said, "So anybody can shop here."
The man was not a burden, but a Christmas gift from God, Flewellen said.
"I felt him through my spirit-the need to feel included," she said.
At the Free Store and throughout the ministries in the Shalom Zone, there is a crying need for people to feel included, ministers said. Finding a place where she was accepted led Senseera Potter to go beyond changing her own life to ministering to others. She leads a "I hear you, sister" women's support group at New Horizons.
Since she decided to turn her life over to Christ, Potter said, "God has done some beautiful things for me."
*Briggs is news editor of United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]